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College that celebrated student riot is being sued for canceling benefactor as eugenics 'mastermind'

Middlebury College scapegoated former governor and alum who saved it from financial ruin for "public relations purposes," suit says.

Published: March 27, 2023 11:24pm

Updated: April 2, 2023 11:11pm

A New England liberal arts college that celebrated a student riot that sent a professor to the emergency room then allegedly incentivized students to continue disrupting events, defamed one of its most famous sons to justify its unlawful removal of his family name from the campus chapel he paid to build, according to a lawsuit by his estate.

Though John Mead was a Civil War veteran, doctor, philanthropist and Vermont governor who promoted "clean energy," women's suffrage and the humane treatment of mental patients, Middlebury College falsely portrayed the alum as "the mastermind" of a eugenics movement that resulted in Vermont's sterilization law long after his death.

Mead Memorial Chapel, whose "location, design and construction" Mead controlled, helped save Middlebury from financial ruin and remains the face of the college in "promotional literature and videos," particularly its towering spire, special administrator Jim Douglas alleges in the March 24 Superior Court complaint. 

The suit alleges breach of contract and demands compensatory damages and restitution, claiming Middlebury also violated the covenant of good faith and fair dealing by "scapegoating a man for the college's public relations purposes" and breached a "condition gift."

By stripping the name responsible for Middlebury's "aesthetic keystone" and its subsequent $1.52 billion endowment, the college has unjustly enriched itself, according to the complaint.

The college joins a long line of other elite institutions stripping their histories from campus. Last week, the University of California Berkeley continued its yearslong effort to memory-hole important figures by approving the erasure of political science department founder Bernard Moses for his "racist and colonialist" views.

Also a Middlebury alum and former Republican governor of Vermont, Douglaskipped his 50th reunion last year in protest of Middlebury's cancellation of Mead just five years after the college celebrated the chapel's centennial.

In a message to supporters, Douglas, appointed by the court last summer to represent the estate, accuses the college of violating its own "policy on free expression and its professed tolerance for views that are controversial."

He called on backers to challenge "the cancel culture that led to this" defamation of Mead and "erasure" of the fellow governor's family legacy, which includes "three Civil War veterans who fought to free the African American slaves in the South and preserve the Union," according to the complaint.

Douglas told Just the News in an email the suit took more than a year and half to commence because of "some research that needed to be done: I spent a lot of time in the College Archives & some family members did a lot of work, too" before they approached a law firm.

He had two meetings with Middlebury officials that proved to be "useless," so he hopes the court will "insist on more serious negotiations" between the parties that will "force some progress."

Connecting Mead to 1930s eugenics programs is "ludicrous," Douglas said.

The suit provides exhaustive contemporaneous evidence of the conditions of Mead's $75,000 grant in 1914 and the purpose of the name, to commemorate "the Mead family ancestors who embodied the values that were symbolized by the Chapel itself" and fellowshipped with Native Americans when they settled what was then the American frontier.

Unlike modern Middlebury namings that were not inextricably tied to a gift, trustees and faculty at the time repeatedly emphasized the chapel name would permanently honor Mead's ancestors, who include a physician to King George II and aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington, according to the suit. 

It was "the essence of the deal, and it was the entire deal — forever," with a value to the college that "cannot be overstated," Douglas argues. "Erected as a place of divine worship and a meeting house for the college community, it is a structure of great beauty and stature that served as catalyst to encourage other significant private donations as well as public moneys to flow to the college." 

Most of the heavily illustrated complaint is devoted to extolling Mead's family history, including Richard Mead's pioneering 18th century treatise on "pestilential contagion" and the future governor's rags-to-riches story that involved teaching, cleaning buildings and "haying" to pay for school, including his medical education. John Mead graduated Middlebury "solvent but nearly penniless."

But the suit also seeks to debunk Middlebury's portrayal of Mead's "mainstream progressive views" in the early 20th century as rooted in racism or even a particularly strident version of eugenics. 

Middlebury's September 2021 statement announcing it had unilaterally removed the name plaque from the chapel without prior notice claimed that Mead played a "role in promoting eugenics policies in the state that led to the involuntary sterilization of an estimated 250 people." It insisted the chapel was named after Mead himself rather than his ancestors.

The college is referring to Mead's farewell address as he left office in 1912, two years before putting up the funds for the chapel, Douglas argues. Mead asked the Legislature to "restrict" issuing marriage licenses to "persons convicted of rape, incest, open or gross lewdness" and to couples where either party suffers from "tuberculosis, syphilis, or epilepsy" or has been confined "for habitual drunkenness, feeble-mindedness, or insanity."

Mead also called for a commission to study "the advisability of the adoption of the operation of vasectomy as a prevention for the spread of hereditary taints and diseases." This was "a more humane procedure" than sterilization options at the time, according to the suit.

The Vermont sterilization law Middlebury attributed to Mead's advocacy came 19 years after his farewell address and 11 years after his death, Douglas notes. Its intent was to prevent procreation of "idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded, or insane."

The college has offered no evidence Mead's views were motivated by racism, the suit says. They were typical among the "mainstream" elite, including disability rights advocate Helen Keller, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, author T.S. Eliot and liberal economist John Maynard Keynes.

"Had Mead lived twenty more years, who is to say that he would not have come to a different opinion and persuaded the legislature to repeal the sterilization law?" Douglas asked. 

Even though the suit says Middlebury should not impose a "21st century world view" on actors who reflected their contemporary society, it faults the college for not "making amends for the racist remarks" of President Paul Dwight Moody, who served for a decade after the Vermont eugenics law was enacted.

Middlebury spokesperson Julia Ferrante declined to comment on the litigation, respond to the history presented by Douglas or explain if Middlebury has removed any other names more strongly associated with the eugenics movement. 

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